Sex abuse survivor wants police to do more about 'unfounded' cases

Between 2010 and 2014, Stratford Police dismissed 48 of 101 sexual assault cases as "unfounded," which is almost three times the national average. One woman in the city wants the police force to do more to make sure those numbers go down.

‘If we can fix it for everybody, then that’s kind of everybody getting justice’

Tahirih McDonnell of Stratford, who was uncomfortable with showing her face in a photo, has offered eight recommendations to the local police services board. McDonnell is herself a survivor of sexual abuse, but never got to see her abuser brought to justice because he died with the case on the Crown attorney's desk. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Between 2010 and 2014, Stratford Police dismissed 48 of 101 sexual assault cases as "unfounded" – almost three times the national average.

Tahirih McDonnell's case could be among them – she doesn't know.

But it doesn't really matter. 

She wants change either way.

"I want the next person that comes in, I want them to feel heard and I want them to feel respected and I want results," McDonnell told CBC News in a conversation in her century-old Stratford home earlier this year.

McDonnell, who never saw her abuser brought to justice, said she wants Police Chief Mike Bellai to step down, and has called on the force to do more to help victims.

"For myself, I want to finally be able to get some closure," she said. "I didn't get justice, but if we can fix it for everybody, then that's kind of everybody getting justice, right?" 

Abuse occurred during little excursions

McDonnell was first abused in the late 1970s, when she was in kindergarten.

The man, a family member, would tell her they were going on a little trip or for a boat ride.

"Unfortunately, that wasn't actually the reason why we were there," McDonnell recalled as her dog, a border collie mix, sat by her side, watching her intently.

These little trips went on for a number of years until it stopped.

She doesn't know why it stopped, but she suspects it's because she got old enough to ask questions and that may have spooked her abuser.

She said she told a friend at school about the abuse, but that friend didn't believe her.

She never told her mother.

After a while, she wondered if she had made the whole thing up – a child's imagination running wild.

Police had a confession

About 15 years later, her abuser was convicted of sexually assaulting a young boy.

McDonnell said she felt shame and guilt, wondering if it would have made a difference if she had spoken up years earlier.

It was at this time that police told her the man – her abuser – had confessed to hurting her, too. She said that the news came as a shock. 

"They asked if I had any memories of that and I, being a 20-year-old very nervous, reserved young woman, said no."

I so strongly believe every person that comes forward with this kind of story makes it even just the tiniest bit easier for the next person that follows.- Tahirih McDonnell

She said she felt blindsided. She wasn't ready to deal with the abuse and the confession, but the police officer kept pushing her, kept calling her to ask her if she wanted to press charges.

"I did not know how I wanted to proceed. I agonized over how to deal with it, but worse than agonizing over that decision was having phone calls probing for an answer and I ultimately asked him to stop calling and to do whatever," she said.

The officer asked if she wanted him to close the case.

"Whatever. I don't care. Yes. Just go."

'It was the right thing to do'

After years of counselling, McDonnell came to realize she needed closure, and part of that closure was seeing her abuser pay for his crimes.

"It was the right thing to do for myself. It was the right thing to do for other people who potentially could come across [her abuser]," she said.

"It was the right thing to do for other women out there who weren't there yet, because I so strongly believe every person that comes forward with this kind of story makes it even just the tiniest bit easier for the next person that follows."

But McDonnell said when she reached out to police in 2011, what followed was a two-year ordeal that never ended with her getting the closure she so desperately needed and wanted.

Confession lost, then found

She met with a junior officer, then a captain who is now a senior officer within the force, and was told they couldn't find the initial confession from her abuser.

When the officers did find the confession, they said it didn't match her account.

She said they asked her questions like, "You have a good life now, why are you doing this? Can anyone else [corroborate] what you're saying? He's old and he's sick, he's not going to do this to anybody else."

In 2012, McDonnell said she learned her case had been sent to the OPP in Teeswater, Ont., in Bruce County. The move was not explained to her and she said it didn't make sense, as all of the abuse took place in Stratford.

Case moved back to Stratford

In January 2013, she learned her abuser had lung cancer and had been given two weeks to live.

McDonnell started making phone calls, first to the OPP in Bruce County and then to the Crown.

She said she was told by a Bruce County Crown attorney the case was absolutely prosecutable, but he wasn't the Crown to do it.

The paperwork was then sent back to Stratford, but the Crown there apologized: there was a backlog and he hadn't had a chance to review the case.

And then her abuser died.

From a legal perspective, it was over – case closed.

Stratford Police Chief Mike Bellai at the police services board meeting Thursday. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Eight recommendations

After she heard Stratford Police would be doing an internal review of their "unfounded" sexual assault cases, McDonnell made eight recommendations to the police services board:

  • Have external agencies oversee the sexual assault review.
  • Provide in depth sensitivity training for officers.
  • Create new protocols for sexual assault cases, including internal and external audits.
  • Hire more female officers.
  • Provide better facilities and a more welcoming space for those reporting sexual assault.
  • Create a special services unit for sexual assault cases.
  • Have survivors take part in the review.
  • Police Chief Mike Bellai should step down.

Board approves external oversight of review

Insp. Steve Shaw of Stratford Police is currently reviewing all 101 sexual assault cases reported between 2010 and 2014, including the 48 cases that were deemed "unfounded."

At the police services board meeting Thursday night, board members agreed to have Insp. Sandra Trepte from Peel Regional Police oversee that review.

The review will be an open and transparent process, according to board chair and Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson.

Multiple drafts of the final report into the cases – at least five drafts are expected – will all be discussed at meetings that will be open to the public. 

I appreciate that victims of sexual assault have very much been hurt through this whole process and we need to be mindful of how we can make things go smoothly for them.- Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson

Trepte will have the freedom to look through any files or ask any questions she wants, Mathieson said.

"I appreciate that victims of sexual assault have very much been hurt through this whole process and we need to be mindful of how we can make things go smoothly for them." 

He said if it is revealed during the review process that members of the police force made errors, they will be held accountable.

"We'll evaluate all the findings at the end of the process," he said. "We'll do so in the process we're supposed to do it, which is not in the court of public opinion on radio shows, but behind closed doors with the information in front of us and we'll render decisions that are appropriate."

Chief Mike Bellai will not step down or be removed from his post, Mathieson said.

Had hoped for 'more space'

McDonnell said she lives with what happened to her every day. The wife and mother of two wants to ensure what she endured is not something any other victim has to experience.

In her interview with CBC News, McDonnell never cried. She took moments to compose herself, paused to make sure she was using the right words and recounted in detail what happened to her on those walks in the old grove or rides on the boat with her abuser.

But it all became too much for her Thursday night at the police services board.

She broke down and cried.

"I'm still not pleased that they are as involved as they are," she said after the meeting, after she had once again composed herself. "I am concerned that they're continuing with their internal review. I was hoping for there to be more space between the review and the Stratford Police force."


  • A previous version of this story said Stratford Police have 101 sexual assault cases that are marked as "unfounded." In fact, Stratford Police have 48 of 101 sexual assaults cases between 2010 and 2014 marked as unfounded.
    Apr 22, 2017 9:31 AM ET